The scientist who helped NASA catch an asteroid

Among those behind one of NASA’s greatest feats of science — collecting samples from a moving asteroid — is a Venezuelan-American immigrant who came to the United States to realize a lifelong dream.

This past October, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft took a sample from the asteroid Bennu, the smallest object from which a spacecraft has ever collected a sample.

Humberto Campins was born and raised in Venezuela and has loved astronomy since he was a child. “Staring at the night sky, I would feel a sensation that it was so beautiful and there was so much to learn,” he said.

When it came time for university, there was nowhere in Venezuela where Campins could major in astronomy, so he immigrated to the United States. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1977, and went on to earn his doctorate in planetary science at the University of Arizona. He became a U.S. citizen in 1989.

Campins spent a number of years researching and teaching astronomy until he joined the faculty at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2002. In 2010, NASA selected Campins to become a science team member for the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

“I did not even have it in my wildest goals to be a part of a NASA team that would send a spacecraft to an asteroid and bring back a sample,” he said.

Campins worked with rocket scientists and other imaging specialists to understand the geographical landscape of the asteroid Bennu.

Man standing and holding microphone talking to group of seated people (NASA/Cory Huston)
Humberto Campins gives a status update on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx program to Kennedy Space Center employees on April 16, 2019. (NASA/Cory Huston)

The mission required the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to touch the asteroid using a 3.4 meter mechanical arm with a small head designed to collect the sample. The spacecraft made contact with Bennu for about 5 seconds.

The soil conditions were so favorable during the October 2020 mission that the probe collected more than NASA’s target goal. The probe is set to return to Earth by September 2023, when researchers will be able to analyze the samples.

Campins’ imaging research at UCF is funded by both NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Campins is also part of the 2021-2022 Jefferson Science Fellows program, which will support his continued research on astronomy. The program is administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and is supported by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Meanwhile, Campins stresses how the mission to Bennu will expand our common knowledge. “This type of asteroid — these primitive asteroids — contain organic molecules that existed on Earth before the formation of life,” he says. With these samples, “we may be able to understand how life formed on Earth.”